The High Cost of Doing the Right Thing


Wyatt Earp, 1923There are times, when doing the right thing, sets off a chain reaction that results in good and honorable individuals ruining their lives. Such a thing happened one hundred and thirty years ago, on this day, in Tombstone, Arizona.

It was about good verses evil. There are sources who try to muddy the story, and make it about how vile and nasty Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday were to the happy-go-lucky Cowboys. What we have, in this interpretation is the fact that, in order to prove a point, they must legitimize violent deeds and malevolent individuals who conducted what amounted to a reign of terror in southern Arizona for nearly two years.

There is a fascinating progression of the beginnings of organized crime in this country. It began during the early days of the Civil War along the Kansas – Missouri border. William Clarke Quantrill was a sociopath who thought nothing of murder and theft to achieve his ends. His career included the horrific raid on Lawrence Kansas, on April 21, 1863. Anywhere between 185 and 200 men and boys were killed during the looting of the banks and stores. Emerging from Quantrill’s Raiders were a guerrilla group, who were Confederate sympathizers, were the aristocracy of American crime.

Frank Dalton
Frank James
Jessie James
Coleman Younger
James Younger

Get the picture?

There are stories that Newman Haynes Clanton also rode with them for a time, but I’ve never been able to confirm the story. He was a cattle thief, and was the patriarch of the Cowboys in Cochise County. John Ringo’s aunt was married to Coleman Younger, uncle to the Younger brothers who rode with the James Gang.

These were very bad men. They thought nothing of murder, theft, black-mail, terror, and extortion. They did, though, appear to be respectful of women. The residents of southern Arizona and New Mexico lived in terror of this group outlaws. According to my research, there was upward of at least 200 men riding with the Cowboys at one time or another. Virgil Earp always swore there were at least 300. Who am I to argue with Virgil?

This was the situation that faced Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp, Virgil Earp and Doc Holiday around 2:30 PM on this day in 1881. They were being threatened by Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, along with Wes Fuller, Billy Claiborne, and perhaps a few others. Wyatt’s biographer, Stuart Lake, said that Wyatt thought even the Cochise County Sheriff, John Behan was taking pot-shots at them.

In less than a minute, three men, Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, and Tom McLaury lay either dead or dying. Ike Clanton had fled in terror, as had Claiborne and Fuller. Doc Holliday, Morgan and Virgil Earp were all injured. Only Wyatt emerged physically unscathed.

Wyatt Earp, before that afternoon, was a man on the rise, with just the right connections to advance, politically. By the time he “cleaned up” Cochise County during his Vendetta Ride the following March and April, his future prospects had come to an end. He spent the next 47 years surviving and dealing with his legend.

Many years later, a young writer would be introduced to him. She would periodically pay a visit. During those visits, Wyatt would not talk about the past. He wanted to know about her soul and her relationship with Christ. She dedicated her life to Christ, because of Wyatt Earp.

One day, not long before he died, she stopped in to visit, to find Wyatt and legendary screen cowboy Tom Mix involved in making a list of questions Wyatt was going to ask the Almighty when he arrived in heaven.

Wyatt Earp never turned his back on the Lord, no matter what the heart-break. I have found very people who endured the unhappiness as did he. His young bride died about a year after they were married. She was pregnant. His brother, Morgan, was murdered in front of him. His brother, Warren, was murdered. He and Josie lost two babies in infancy.

He was a gambler when it was legal and an honorable profession. One of my favorite stories of him is a recent addition to his tale. In the winter of 1882, while legendary Episcopalian priest and educator Endicott Peabody was collecting money to finish the construction on St. Paul’s Episcopal Church he decided to stop in at the legendary Crystal Palace Saloon. Several of the women of the church were with them. Naturally, as ladies, they waited outside the saloon.

The moment Wyatt, who was dealing faro, knew what Peabody was doing, he gave him a stack of ten gold dollars. We calculated that the amount was about $900. Today that would be about twenty thousand dollars! Wyatt then went to all the other dealers, shacking them down on their night’s winnings.

The cost for building St. Paul’s, the first Protestant church in the Arizona Territory, was about $2500 or so. Nine hundred of that went to finish the interior, minues the stained glass windows. Wyatt Earp contributed exactly that amount. We have calculated that he was responsible for at least half of the funds raised to build the church!